We are meaning-making creatures, and when a disaster appears utterly senseless to us, it intensifies the anguish. This has been true of the rampage in Connecticut, where school children have been murdered by a young man whose motives are as yet unfathomable as death itself.
According to one study, about half of rampage killers have a history of mental illness that society would not or could not treat. Overtaken by paranoid delusions, they may believe that the world and self are collapsing. In reaction, they look to violence to destroy the threat. Since the threat is a mix of psychic turmoil and available cultural themes, the choice of tactics and victims may mix tortured logic and happenstance. But while explosive anger can be a symptom, many rampage killers such as Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, make elaborate plans and present coherent, if criminal, motives.
Jared Loughner, notorious for a massacre that gravely wounded Rep. Gabrielle Gifford in 2011, became convinced that the government is sinister and, without a gold standard, debasing the currency. He feared that like paper money, words are artificial and losing their meaning. To friends he described the way dreaming and waking were blurring together in his mind.
These are psychotic fears that reality is dissolving. Yet denial keeps us from recognizing that these symptoms are also distorted versions of widely held beliefs. Government and business constantly subvert words—we call it "spin." In the financial press "goldbugs" take for granted that the government is deliberately cheapening the dollar to dilute Federal debt. And as the movies and pop song lyrics remind us, life always has dreamlike qualities.
Like Adam Lanza in Connecticut, some berserkers are described as shy or withdrawn. The terms acknowledge not only an inability to bond with others, as in autism, but also the intensified demands of an inner world. Beset by delusions, unemployed and adrift, with a darkening future, Jared Loughner faced social death. Running amok, he was trying to prove his own reality: that he was alive. That he mattered. If your early childhood sense of "what is right" begins to collapse and you feel totally alone and cornered, then godlike power over life and death may seem like the only way to concentrate your self. James Holmes opened fire in a Colorado movie theater screening a Batman fantasy of superhuman, violent righteousness.
Like an infantile superhero movie, violence "purifies" ambivalence and confusion. The moment of violent action explodes description. For an instant all conflicts, history, and the future are annihilated. The process can be seen as suicidal oblivion or heroic transcendence, as in the religious mania of the 9/11 terrorists. Many berserkers, including Adam Lanza, kill themselves after the spasm is past, when momentary oblivion begins to reveal real-world consequences.
Berserkers are usually male and draw on ancient male cultural themes of warrior heroism, the hunt, and patriarchal rescue or punishment. Stress and incoherence can confuse or mask the themes, and overriding neurological pressures may make them opportunistic, but almost always they shape rampage behavior. Adam Lanza wore military garb, and about half of rampage killers have had military training. The Columbine killers played out military models. As in military fantasy, the alluring role is Rambo-style solo heroism with assault weapons. Jared Loughner tried to substantiate his unraveling identity by posing for photos in a G-string with 9-mm bullets tattoed on his back and a pistol on his hip. You could say he stripped off his troubled everyday self, trying to become a fantasy hero. The photos show either an avenging Rambo saving the world or a lost soul acting tough. Posing, tattoed with bullets, Loughner was making himself a weapon. No more conflicts, no more fears. Just pure force. I am a bullet. Superhuman. The power of his fantasy showed up after his assault, when people rushed to buy guns. It is the same fantasy that the NRA rationalizes for gun owners.
In effect, firearms are the most obvious—and in the US, available—means of pumping up the self. From Hollywood westerns to paramilitary police headlines, the gun settles conflicts. "Going postal," a "terminated" employee counters the fear of social death by pumping up intoxicating rage.
Social death means no future: no intimate bonds to substantiate you, no seeking, no story. While we can only speculate, this may help to explain attacks on children. We grow up in school, among others who reflect who we are and want to be. To feel isolated and rejected for whatever reasons—neurology, "temperament," social prejudice—could spur a lasting urge for revenge: to "wipe out" a sickening memory. By some reports Adam Lanza had to be home-schooled when he didn't get along with others in primary school. One of the Columbine killers was pitifully depressed, the other gripped by arrogant fury, but both died to destroy a school.
A killer may be attacking the oppressive ideal child he couldn't be. The violence may be trying to obliterate the child at the core of his own personality whose disintegration in illness feels terrifying and demands emergency action. More poignantly, other people's children can represent the love, hope, and happiness of the family that the killer despairs of ever enjoying. In the most basic way, children dramatize unlimited life before social pressure and adult roles constrict it. Childhood is posterity, remote from death, close to fantasies of immortality. A target of doomed envy
And so a despairing father "sacrifices" his own children, perhaps for revenge against an alienated spouse. Even the fanatical Norwegian ideologue Anders Behring Breivik, who imagined he was saving Europe from Islam, slaughtered happy children at a summer camp.
Breivik could remind us of another dimension to the behavior: his plan was a hunt. As in our evolutionary past, warfare, or in some video games today, rampage killers frequently act like hunters. And like all predators, hunters prefer the young as victims because they are easier and less dangerous to kill in numbers. If the goal is a world-gripping record kill, few transgressions can match the slaughter of children.
This brings us to the problem of berserk behavior as a cultural style. Granted someone's potential for rage, why does it so often follow the same gun-slinging scenario? One answer is that virtually every rampage killing has a copycat element to it. Nobody, homicidal or not, can be completely spontaneous. American culture has elaborately modeled rampage behavior in news, entertainment, and lore, where self-abandon is associated with "breakthrough" performance and "going for it."
Like the hunt, combat, and sport, rampage killing is a competition for "star"-dom: for the godlike power to hold the world in terrified thrall. In this sense the concentration on glory or infamy can be intoxicating. Defying a lifetime of inhibitions and laws, the ecstatic killer is "beside" himself. If you fear that the ground of your personality is disintegrating, you can dream that the world's attention will make you feel real. If you die in the attack, better to go out in a blaze of glory than to sink alone into terrified, helpless madness.
We like to think that sanity and the mad murderer are tidy categories, and that the culture has effective ways of treating them. But a school massacre says this isn't true, which is one reason why Americans keep lethal weapons under the pillow, despite all the proven dangers they pose. This is one way of understanding why audiences are drawn to rant broadcasting for invigorating doses of outrage. Like the would-be rampage killer's seething, a daily dose of anger can relieve depression and anxiety, converting flight into fight and feelgood indignation. Some rampage killers have acknowledged the influence of rant media. Why should it surprise us? Listeners are hearing disembodied voices in the air that urge them to heroic outrage against enemies.
The point is not that we’re all rampage killers. But under stress, feeling cornered, some of us will use the ideas and passions around us to make a story we can act on. Adam Lanza's mother was a "gun enthusiast" in an area of gun enthusiasts, and he used her weapons to make her his first victim. Her former sister-in-law, Marsha Lanza, told reporters that Nancy was part of the Doomsday Preppers movement, whose members believe they need to prepare for the end of the world. She had a survivalist mentality and had turned her home "into a fortress." You could be excused for wondering if Adam Lanza might have been able to resist the plunge into violence if he wasn't living in an arsenal, with a mother whose anxieties played out as survivalist ideas.
In a television interview a few days after the massacre a Texas politician called for more guns. If the young woman principal of the school had been armed, he fantasized to a national audience, she could have "taken out" the killer. It's Batman as national policy.
And you could be excused for thinking that reducing stress would be a better cultural ethos than survival-of-the-fittest "creative destruction" and trigger-finger heroics. In an underemployed nation that's stripped down to its G-string at home while paying for history’s most extravagant weapons, there are healthier policies than shooting into the dark because you heard a noise.
1. Laurie Goodstein and William Glaberson, “The Well-Marked Road to Homicidal Rage,” New York Times (April 10, 2000).
2. Matt Flegenheimer, "A Mother,a Gun Enthusiast and the First Victim," New York Times (December 15, 2013).
3. Caroline Bankoff, "Newtown Shooter Adam Lanza;s Mother was an Avid Gun Collector," New York (December 15, 2013).
For more context, see "The New Rampage Mentality" here and Berserk Style in American Culture. The most insightful study of how the terror of death begets viuolence is Ernest Becker's Escape from Evil.